Fire season has grown longer and more severe since the Malibu fire in 2013, state fire officials said. (Photo courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.)
A ring of flames closed around the Sacramento region this week, as more than a dozen wind-whipped wildfires scurried across Northern California and left public safety officials searching for new superlatives to describe a worsening trend.
“We’re seeing conditions we haven’t seen before,” Chief Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal FIRE, said during an October 9 press conference in Mather.
Noting that fire officials made similar pronouncements when the Butte fire ravaged rural Northern California counties in the fall of 2015, Pimlott added, “I think we’ve raised the bar.”
Approximately 19,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders, with another 9,000 in the danger zone as fires ran uncontrolled across a northern Bay Area region known for its scenic wine country and well-appointed towns. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as many as 14,000 homes and a hundred businesses, as well as schools, fire stations, a post office and state hospital stood to burn in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. That’s where structures have been “absolutely destroyed” by a flurry of late-season wildfires that all started Sunday, October 8, Pimlott said.
Speaking less than 24 hours later from the state Office of Emergency Services’ local command center, Pimlott told reporters and those watching a live Facebook feed of his address that 16 major fires were devouring property and endangering lives across the North Bay and Sacramento Valley areas. There was both a sense of deja vu and of being in uncharted territory in the chief’s message.
“Literally, we’ve been back here time and time again in the last four to five years,” Pimlott said.
The hardest hit communities were in Napa County, where three active fires had decimated 53,000 acres as of late Monday morning, according to Cal FIRE. The largest, at 25,000 acres and counting, is the Tubbs fire spanning Napa and Sonoma counties between Kellogg and Calistoga. Sonoma County was also under threat from the 5,000-acre Nuns fire just north of Glen Ellen, which Pimlott said burned through department stores and threatened hospitals. Even this far into the fall, Pimlott said the state was a long way from the end of wildfire season, thanks to bitter, unpredictable winds. Despite seeing an official end to California’s five-year drought last winter, prevailing climate trends have turned the state into a year-round tinderbox.
“Every spark’s going to ignite a fire,” Pimlott warned.
The California National Guard and California Highway Patrol were assisting in the response. On Monday, FEMA announced it would provide federal funding and coordination after determining the fires “threatened such destruction as would constitute a major disaster,” an announcement stated.
Mark Ghilarducci, director of Cal OES, said the priority was to support shelter operations for those under active evacuation orders. He noted that his agency was also working to restore power to tens of thousands of North Bay residents.
Pimlott said it was critical that residents immediately heed evacuation orders so firefighters could focus on slowing the progress of the stampeding flames.
Audio issues with the Facebook broadcast made that message difficult to discern, however, and those who tuned into the social media platform reacted with angry-face emojis and frustrated comments, like this one from a Facebook user: “Please repeat so we can get this. Our houses are at stake!”
Cal OES acknowledged the technical difficulties, but was unable to fix the sound quality before the press conference concluded. Instead, help came from an unlikely source. As is often typical for significant press briefings, a person standing to the right of the podium translated the officials’ words into American Sign Language. That allowed Facebook user Alicia Hommel, whose profile identifies her as a resident mentor at the Indiana School for the Deaf, to summarize the interpreter’s signs into written posts on the comment thread.
Facebook user John Howard was one of several who thanked Hommel for life-hacking the glitchy broadcast.
“Here we have interpretation of official comments provided by a woman who can read sign language for the deaf relayed to people whose hearing is okay,” Howard wrote. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
An updated version of this story will appear in the October 12, 2017, issue.